Lit Lit: Turtles All the Way Down

Lit Lit: Turtles All the Way Down

Lit Lit is a segment here on The Thrill in which I get someone lit (yup) and then that someone chooses a work of literature and gives me a summary and quick discussion of the themes of that work. This time I had the pleasure of talking about, yes, you read that right, Turtles All the Way Down by our very own John Green, with who I will refer to throughout as Mackerel Rough.  Dialogue is written in plain old font, our actions in italics.

What is John Green’s highly reviewed book Turtles All the Way Down all about?

MR: So I must first put out a disclaimer that I am somewhat embarrassed to have bought the book, but I had to buy it, or else sixteen year old me would have been mad at me. Do you know what I mean though? I bought it at the bookstore, it was signed and everything. It was also 20% off which is pretty good for a hardcover. And like I have all his other books. I had to.

Okay, Turtles All the Way Down is about Aza Holmes. Right, the name is already cringey. But anyway. Literally what happens is Aza has OCD, that’s kinda one of the themes of the book. But basically her and her friend Daisy decide–they live in Indianapolis, and there’s this scandal where this kid named Davis Pickett Somethingorother, his dad has disappeared. His dad is gone, he’s this multimillionaire who made his money through, investments? I’m not sure. Anyway. His son, Davis Pickett who is the love interest.

Basically what happens is Aza and Daisy find out, and Aza knows Davis from summer camp because they went to a summer camp for people with deceased parents? So she lost her dad and Davis lost his mom, and they went to this summer camp for kids who are grieving, and she talks about this memory where they’re lying on the dock and looking up at the sky or whatever. When this scandal comes out, she reconnects with Davis, so Aza and Daisy take a canoe across–What’s the river in Indianapolis? It’s not the Indianapolis River. [sidenote: it’s the White River] It’s the Insert-Midwestern-River-Here, right?

So they get to the house and they’re creeping around and the butler takes them to Davis, and it goes from there. I’m trying to think of what else happens in this book.

Me: Is it difficult to parse out what happens in the book?

MR: Yes! Kind of. Okay hold on, let me read the flap.

Mackerel then proceeds to read the summary on the book jacket to find out what happens in a book she has already read.

MR: So then what happens is this SPARKS a roMANCE between Aza and Davis. So it’s like poor girl from one side of the river to rich boy from the other side, and it’s not super romantic to be honest. Which I thought this one would not have a romance in it. I don’t know why I thought that but this one was marketed more toward mental health so I thought it would focus more on the mental health stuff, and I was pretty disappointed when there was a romance.


MR: In my own experience as a young woman my formative years involved reading a lot of these books and so reading something like this as a twenty year old is so different from reading like (Looking for) Alaska. When I was sixteen and reading Alaska you know it set up these unrealistic expectations for what was going to happen and what men are like, and then you actually interact with young men and you’re like, “Well I thought you’d be interested in my intellect as well as my body but no you’re actually a piece of shit.” And that’s fine, because you can recognize teen boys are a piece of shit. But there’s something different about being fed a weird romantic subplot in your movies vs. the books you read. Do you know what I mean? In a movie it’s a different kind of real than ours. But if you’re reading a book, a YA novel as a young woman, one you’re supposed to devour, which I absolutely did.

Me: I also devoured them.

MR: Exactly. I love it! It’s like CRACK, you know? But when you read these romances you think “What’s wrong with me? No one has ever talked to me this way.”

I will always have a special place in my heart for John Green’s books, for Looking for Alaska, these were transformative books for me at the time. Since then some of the things he’s written have been corporate garbage, but Alaska was like this true raw book, and now he kinda has to make books that can be turned into movies with Shailene Woodley in them.

Me: I think he also knows he has a large audience, and he knows he’s a role model so I think he feels like he can’t be transgressive in a way that he used to be.

MR: Alaska is pretty raw as far as YA novels go.

Me: The irony is that it’s that rawness and the transgressiveness that so many teenagers related to I think.

MR: Exactly and now there’s nothing we can relate to because it’s not grounded in reality anymore.

Me: We are also getting older.

MR: Fuck. That’s also true.


MR: So Aza and Daisy are trying to figure out what happened to Davis’ dad while Aza and Davis are forming this romance. But Aza’s OCD is getting in the way of her being able to have physical intimacy, which is a really interesting perspective too. She’ll make out with him, and she talks about her thought spirals which is the manifestation of her OCD, and this is surrounded her fear of bacteria. So she’s afraid she’ll get this bacterial disease called C. diff which is like this E. coli disease you can get from food or whatever and she’s afraid it will kill her. Like she’ll be making out with this guy and then pull away because she’s afraid of getting this disease.

Basically eventually they come to this understanding with all these clues their dad is leaving them, and they all end up in this art show under Indianapolis and they realize that Davis’ dad is actually dead and buried under the city. Aza actually does not end up with Davis because of the mental health thing and she talks to Davis about it–which is really different for John Green. What happens is Davis has all these paintings his dad left him and one of them is this spiral, so the end romantic gesture is him giving her the spiral painting, and that works with the thought spirals her OCD manifests in. It’s weird for John Green because it’s not this overly unrealistic romantic gesture, and it ends with Aza being like “I still have OCD and it’s still hard and we’re not together but we went through this thing together and we still care about each other and blah blah blah blah blah. Alright this is my life, every day it gets better.” But the payoff isn’t as satisfying, I talked to one friend from home who was like “I really needed them to end up together.” The way the rest of the novel pans out, you want them to be together.


MR: When you’re reading these books from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl and it’s very clearly a forty something year old man, it’s weird because it’s not a genuine portrayal of how young women are. There were parts where I was like “That’s not how girls talk.” She’s talking about Davis at one point and they’re sitting at the dinner table and he rolls up his sleeves and she starts talking about “Oh! His forearms! I’ve always had a thing for guys’ forearms!” and I was thinking to myself “Geez that’s so unrelatable.” ‘Cuz when I was sixteen I never felt that way about a man with forearms. Some people get what he’s saying, maybe now at age twenty twenty one, but at sixteen it’s so hard to wrap your head around what sex is and what bodies are and to point out this weird PHEW forearm thing, I don’t know. That was weird for me.

I wonder what would happen reading this at sixteen vs. twenty, you have so many different life experiences between now and sixteen. It is funny to try to relate to these characters when you’re older because you can more easily point out the blatant hilarity of things. I feel like when you’re sixteen or seventeen or even eighteen, every feeling you have is the most feeling there has ever been. It’s taken me a long time to remove myself from that, and these books romanticize and perpetuate those all-consuming feelings. When you read this when you’re older there’s this judgement attached, and it’s hard to have nostalgia for that feeling for me. I want to shake the characters and be like “HonEY, he’s just another sixteen year old boy!” To have that magnified and romanticized in this or any YA book feels very false.

I think he really tried to visualize and vocalize mental illness but people I know with anxiety and OCD have actually been warned against this book because it kind of sensationalizes it in certain ways. Which is interesting coming from an author suffering from OCD himself. People are warned against this book because it will make them anxious to read. The descriptions are very graphic in a way that isn’t very helpful, which is too bad.

Me: I think there’s something interesting in that certain truths cannot be told truly because there’s no comfort for people even in having that shared truth, you know?

MR: Yeah right cuz we all seek that shared truth thing in media to point to what it is, but there comes to a certain point where it’s not productive in terms of your own individual mental health. If some sixteen year old reads this will she say “Great, now I’m going to get into fights with my friends and not get the boyfriend I want?”  Your values are so different at that age.

At this point my roommate comes in and audibly gasps when he sees how little vodka is left in our crystal skull bottle. I’ve of course had none, being the sober stable interviewer.

MR: I wonder about writers who want to write YA and why they write YA and why they want to write in perspectives they didn’t grow up. We’re supposed to look at it and say “A woman protagonist WOO thank GOD!” But if you look at the authenticity of the voice…And that gets into a whole other argument about like what are you supposed to write, what are you allowed to write, can you only write what you know? And again, not a writer, not an English major so I don’t know. But how does a forty year old man who was a teenager in another time write about being a teenage girl now, or even teenagers a few years ago when we were teenagers? I don’t know how to feel about it.

It’s definitely stuff I’m going to continue to read as I get older. It’s interesting to see where his values lie and where YA lies as a genre. I don’t know if I’d suggest this though. I’d definitely suggest Looking for Alaska. That was written in what 2010? [2005 actually.]

MR: If this story was written ten years ago how would it be different? What is it like in the teenager in 2017 mentality. Because I’m not even a teenager in 2017. It’s weird to see a book with a copyright 2017 talk about young people now. Things are evolving and changing so fast that you can’t relate to them anymore, which is in a lot of ways sad, but I guess maybe that’s all part of growing and continuing to grow up is.

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